The Curse of Getting What You Want

Freedom can feel like bondage. If it sounds a bit hyperbolic to make such a statement, it is only because we have not considered carefully what we love and the nature of freedom. We often think of freedom in terms of doing what we want, getting what we want, and going where we want. It is the potential of limitless possibility, the removal of boundaries. But such a notion of freedom betrays us. Sometimes getting what you want is a curse.

American cultural values have taught us to conceptualize freedom as the opposite of obligation, responsibility, and boundary. Anything that inhibits personal autonomy, independence, and self-actualization is slavery. It’s depicted throughout literature (see Walden; Into the Wild; The Awakening), psychology and philosophy(The Ego and the Id; Being and Time; The Fountainhead), film (American Beauty; Fight Club; and Wild) and in music (“Shake It Off”; “The Middle”; and “Like it, or Not”). It is ingrained into pop-culture by all sorts of ubiquitous slogans: “Be true to yourself;” “Just do it”; “follow your heart”; “authenticity over everything.” The concept depicts freedom purely as “freedom from”. Freedom means to be without responsibility. As Ayn Rand said:

Freedom (n.): To ask nothing. To expect nothing. To depend on nothing. (The Fountainhead)

Complete and utter autonomy is the normal conceptualization of freedom.

But this conceptualization of freedom turns out to be a curse. Getting exactly what you want, without constraint, without boundaries, usually leaves us distressed, sickened, and in a self-destructive state. James K.A. Smith compares it to a young boy who goes up to a dinner buffet without parental supervision. He sees before him a wealth of foods to eat and indulge in, and no one there to tell him “no.” He is able to stuff himself until freedom becomes nausea and disgust. At the start such “freedom” really does feel exciting and it gives us the illusion of satisfaction and joy. In the long run it will lead us to destruction and disgust.

In part this is because the things we pursue are all unable to actually satisfy, no matter the quantity of our indulgence in them. They are limited in their ability to truly bring me joy and contentment. So, Smith writes:

When freedom is mere voluntariness, without further orientation or goals, then my choice is just another means by which I’m trying to look for satisfaction. Insofar as I keep choosing to try and find that satisfaction in finite, created things – whether it’s sex or adoration or beauty or power – I’m going to be caught in a cycle where I’m more and more disappointed in those things and more and more dependent on those things. I keep choosing things with diminishing returns, and when that becomes habitual, and eventually necessary, then I forfeit my ability to choose. The new thing has me now. (On the Road with Saint Augustine, 66)

Pursuing my hope and satisfaction in finite things usually means that I become enslaved to them. What started out as freedom eventually turns to bondage of a different sort. We see this happen very obviously in drugs and alcohol. The freedom to choose my own lifestyle, the freedom to pursue pleasure or escape pain on my own terms results in addiction. The same thing happens with pornography, intimacy, television, video games, and anything else we look to for satisfaction. Getting what you want becomes a curse!

An interesting example of this freedom-turned-slavery is seen in the life of actor Russell Brand. Brand is hardly a role model, but he experienced something of a massive shift in his thoughts about promiscuity. Smith quotes Brand from an interview he did with Joe Rogan, saying:

This is the thing – when you get the things your culture tells you you should be doing and you experience them now you know you can stop chasing the carrot ’cause you’ve had a bite out of it and it’s like, “Hold on a minute: this is bull—-.” It’s a hard one to learn because anything that’s got an orgasm at the end of it, you know, there’s a degree of pleasure to be had. But it takes a while to recognize the emotional cost on me, the spiritual cost on other people, the fact that it’s preventing me from becoming a father, from becoming a husband, from settling, from becoming rooted, from becoming actually whole, from becoming a man, from becoming connected. It takes a while to spot that. I think a lot of people don’t get the opportunity to break out of that pattern. (97)

Brand says that all his promiscuity left him empty and hollow. Sometimes getting what you want is nothing more than a different form of bondage.

Freedom “from” comes at a cost. It costs us a lot. The woman who left her husband to run away with an old high school boyfriend eventually woke up and realized she had made a terrible mistake. The prodigal son, who spent all his inheritance, woke up in a pig pen. The musician who left his family to pursue his dreams, woke up one day realizing he’d spend nearly 40 years chasing a dream that never materialized and losing the only thing he truly loved, and all for nothing.

The truth is that freedom does not equate to “autonomy.” We are all slaves to something and someone. The Scriptures tell us expressly that we are either slaves to sin or slaves to righteousness (Rom. 6:16-19); we are slaves to God or slaves to Satan. The kind of autonomy we want doesn’t exist for creatures. But in God’s economy the world does not work the way we think it should. For the pursuit of “freedom as autonomy” results in bondage; but slavery to Christ results in true freedom. Jesus has a “yoke” but it is easy, he tells us (Matt. 11:28-30), and it is He who truly sets us free (Gal. 5:1). Romans 6:22 points to an exchange of slave masters: sin vs. God. This exchange produces a different result: death vs. life.  It is a paradox, to be sure (slavery to Christ produces freedom), but it is reality. It’s also an invitation to seek true freedom in Christ, and a warning that getting what you want is a curse.

In fact, God outright says this in multiple places in Scripture. When Israel insists on a King “like the other nations” (1 Samuel 8:5), He gives it to them because they had rejected God as their King (v. 7). King Saul is a form of punishment on Israel. We see the same thing unpacked in Romans 1, where God “gave them up” to their own lusts (v. 24). They got what they wanted, but it was a type of condemnation. Getting what you want is a curse!

Freedom “from” will always lead to destruction. Freedom “to” and freedom “for,” when tied to Christ, leads to true satisfaction. What do you desire? What are you pursuing? Apart from Christ it will all end in addiction, disappointment, emptiness, and destruction. Choose slavery to Jesus and find what you really want. Getting what you want is a curse, unless what you want is Christ!

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